Monday, July 18, 2011

Private and Public

Next week is the national Save our Schools conference, with the main event being a mass rally and march on Washington scheduled for July 30. It certainly has noble purpose: “As concerned citizens, we demand an end to the destructive policies and rhetoric that have eroded confidence in our public schools, demoralized teachers, and reduced the education of too many of our children to nothing more than test preparation” ( I can’t argue with the group’s Guiding Principles. They would make for better schools overall—not just public ones.

Looking at the site, I see that the organization has attracted many prominent supporters from the education world and from many other areas. One noteworthy group, however, is missing: The National Association of Independent Schools. So it’s somewhat ironic that I wasn’t aware of the organization or event until learning of it on the independent school educator’s list-serv. Fred Bartels (who specializes in pushing buttons) said “it sure would be nice to see NAIS” (e-mail, July 9, 2011) on the list of supporters, but NAIS president Pat Bassett wrote back that after consideration it was determined that “an endorsement from the private school world was not appropriate at this time” (e-mail, July 15, 2011).

I’m not writing this to criticize NAIS. Pat Bassett has been quite vocal about independent schools’ moral imperative to serve the public welfare. In fact, the theme of the most recent annual conference was public purpose. I trust NAIS leadership on this. Also, while I should, I don’t really know enough the SOS organization agenda, politics, et cetera to have a valid opinion.

In a quick, get-rich-quick sense, the troubles with the public schools—and I doubt we’ve seen the worst of it, with even more budget cuts looming in many states—serve to benefit independent schools. But I feel sad as we receive applications from parents afraid to send their kids to public school and resumes from teachers fleeing their situations. We can’t serve/hire all of them. In fact, the percentage is rather small.

I want public schools to thrive for many reasons. The most obvious one is so that every single kid has a great education and a shot at the best possible life. Trite, but true. It also would send a signal that we’ve finally come to value education in this nation as much as we claim to.

Were that to happen, it would be good for independent schools. We are the ones who currently have the freedom and the resources to provide a quality education, one that is responsive to student’s current and emerging needs. In such a situation, we’d have to raise our game even more when people had more choice. Effective public education also could teach us a great deal, such as how to meet the various needs of an incredibly diverse clientele. If the current trends continue, some private schools may just grow fat and happy.

While I won’t be at the rally or march, and while I won’t criticize NAIS, I will feel some liberal guilt. But I won’t feel any guilt that my children, wife, and I are all in independent education. Indeed, I feel even more fortunate.

Friday, July 15, 2011

For the Long Term

                A few days ago I was having lunch with St. John’s board president. Our conversations always are interesting, and we cover a wide range of topics—most directly tied to school, some not so much. Well, at least not as directly…but I find myself later bridging the gap.

                At this particular lunch we somehow reached the topic of short- versus long-term thinking. He’s a finance guy, and he pointed out that people don’t think long-term when it comes to investing and financial growth. As an example, he used the way we react to quarterly statements.

                Too often education operates with this same sort of short-term thinking. We organize by short term units, assess by limited instruments, motivate with carrots. Some of this is necessary. We are dealing with young people, who have limited ability to think long term. We have to ensure that certain scaffolding occurs as part of the learning process. At the same time, however, I want to think that we do so with a long-term vision in mind of what an education really should be for.

                It brought to mind a video I had not watched for a while. In it Tom Peters finishes with some examples who really used their learning for a grand purpose.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Googly Education

                This past week I’ve been reading In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy. Basically it’s the story of Google past, present, and future. It’s a very good book, although Levy could have used an editor to cut some of the redundancies. I chose to read it for three reasons, and I readily admit that I’m behind the times on each of them. First, obviously Google is a driving force behind seismic shifts in how we live. Second, Google has some fascinating ways in which it operates as a business, trying to retain their entrepreneurial spirit as they grow increasingly massive. Third, education has tried to pull some lessons from the success of Google. This final point is my focus here.

                Whenever I’ve heard presenters talk about Google, I’ve heard them focus on certain points: how such a powerful search engine changes research, the need for information literacy, Google’s practice of giving employees 20% of their work time for individual projects that may extend the reach and vision of the company. I don’t dispute any of these points, and I’m probably forgetting some. But as I’ve been reading, I’ve been struck by something even more basic—a point that I think is even more vital for education as it prepares kids for a Googly world.

                Sergey Brin and Larry Page question everything. They constantly ask “Why?” and “Why not?” This goes for the possibilities of technology to Google’s sparse design to major business decisions to employee dining. They have retained the spirit of children, and Levy refers regularly to their both being Montessori educated. The book has made me wonder—once again—whether most schools overemphasize how to do things and how things are. Educators need to keep asking “Why?” and “Why not?” And we need to listen carefully when our students do the same. I’m curious about the answers.